SAN DIEGO — Something is not right in Washington. Suddenly a lot of powerful people on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are grabbing hold of the “third rail.”
That’s the term Rahm Emanuel – former U.S. representative, White House chief of staff and now mayor of Chicago – used to describe the immigration issue when he was the top lieutenant for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
President George W. Bush started this conversation in September 2001, when he suggested fixing the country’s arcane immigration laws.
Emanuel worked hard to keep the issue off Congress’ agenda because he didn’t want to aggravate the split in the Democratic Party between Latinos who want to legalize illegal immigrants and union members who don’t. He also didn’t want to put conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the tough spot of having to support what they considered an “amnesty.”
Meanwhile, Republicans were happy to stay away from the subject because they didn’t want to inflame the divide in their party between businesses that want workers and nativists who worry about changing demographics. GOP leaders also didn’t want free-market conservatives to have to oppose legalization just to please the restrictionists.
And so it went for 10 of the past 12 years, with immigration reform placed so far on the back burner that it fell off the stove. Congress took up the issue in 2006 and 2007, but Democratic leader Harry Reid ran that debate into the ground. He brilliantly scuttled reform bills to please organized labor, then pinned the blame on Republicans, which wasn’t hard to do given how clumsily the GOP handles the immigration issue.
Now President Barack Obama and bipartisan coalitions of lawmakers in both the House and Senate appear to be in a terrible hurry to pass an immigration reform bill.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the loudest voices in Washington on this issue, told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that he expects legislation to pass by Labor Day.
So after avoiding the issue for more than a decade, lawmakers want to piece together a deal in just a few months.
Immigration reform groups are mobilizing to rally support for what seems to be a promising plan in the Senate. Like any good compromise, it was immediately attacked by the far right for going too far and by the far left for not going far enough.
Proposed by a bipartisan group of eight senators, the plan would fix the current system by doing four things: creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants; making legal immigration more efficient with an emphasis on retaining high-skilled immigrants; tightening restrictions and penalties on employers to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants; and launching a temporary guest worker program.
In the House, another bipartisan group of lawmakers – which includes Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. – is working on a similar piece of legislation.
In a speech Tuesday in Las Vegas, Obama praised the Senate plan. Yet he reportedly wants the pathway to citizenship to be quicker and easier.
Republicans won’t go for this quick path because it would result in more people earning citizenship and they have no interest in registering voters for the other side.
Still, it’s a whole new game. Or is it? As I said, something is not right.
The accepted narrative is that both parties have suddenly decided to tend to this issue as a way of courting Latino voters, who support comprehensive immigration reform.
Nonsense. Democrats have nothing to lose and Republicans little to gain.
Obama doesn’t owe Latinos a thing. In his first term, his administration deported more than 1.5 million people – most of them Latino – and Latino voters still helped re-elect him with 71 percent of their votes. We’re a cheap date.
Say, this might not be a new game after all. This could be the old game, where both parties go through the motions and nothing gets done. But they get credit for trying.
Here’s the play: Ask for the moon and stars. The other side will object. The deal crumbles. Well, we tried. See you in 10 years. This way you avoid angering the part of your constituency that doesn’t want immigration reform. And you can go back to your constituents that do want reform and blame the other side for not getting it done.
Why am I so skeptical? Experience. Neither party has operated in good faith on this issue for more than a decade. Why start now?
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at [email protected]